It only takes a quick search in Google to realize that Iranians drink a lot of alcohol. The exotic contrast between the Sharia-inspired ban of alcohol in Iran and the elevated interest in drinking it is not something that the mainstream media could ignore. Many of the reports on the issue are decorated with archive pictures of heavy machinery crushing bottles of Vodka and Whiskey in a police-surrounded square in an Iranian city.
Hash, Heroin, and Cocaine are now history. Small pills, often inexpensive and within reach of the youth, are the new satisfiers of the Iranian appetite for quick pleasure. Ask any Iranian, and they have disgusting stories of body parts falling off or corpses rotting because of drug abuse. The stories cannot be confirmed. Most of them are most probably exaggerated. Nevertheless, there is truth in this; Iranian youth do use drugs.
In September 2001 the first Persian post was published. The rather low-profile post was in fact titled “What does weblog really mean?”. In the past eleven years, the Persian blogosphere has made its mark on the Iranian society. These days, many Iranian politicians blog and the Iranian state-run TV warns parents on the hazards of blogging. A female blogger once told me that her father in fact asked her whether she “blogged”. Her impression of the question was as if her dad asked her if she sniffed Cocaine or had had group sex the night before.
While blogs are, at least officially, accepted as instruments which can have a positive contribution to the society, alcohol and drugs are indeed blamed for many problems in the country. But being frowned upon by the state is not the only commonality of the three.
A friend of mine once told me that she was asked for “new cocktail recipes” when she travelled back to Iran for a visit. To her astonishment, her old friends and family members were in fact as knowledgeable about the art of drinking as the best bartenders in Toronto are. “I guess some of them actually know more about this than many bartenders”, my friend suggested. It is a common experience that when our friends from Iran pay us a visit, they find us lame and boring. We drink a beer every few days and might get drunk once every few months. A very sober lifestyle indeed, according to the Iranian standards these days.
One does not have to look far to spot a Persian blog. Google’s Blogger and WordPress do in fact host thousands of Persian blogs. This is in addition to the blogs hosted by the Iran-based providers such as Persian Blog and Blogfa. Many bloggers have also chosen to host their own content on $100 hosting services provided by the likes of Blue Host. And to make the volume of Persian content produced on the web even more, many people now consider posting text and images on Facebook and Google+ as the modern form of blogging.
There are many Persian blogs, many of which are indeed maintained by Iranians based in the country. Nevertheless, in order to find a sane and sober blog one needs to avoid the mainstream. And that could prove to be a challenging task.
I was sitting in my car in the northern part of Toronto a month ago, and connected to the Voice of America studio in Washington DC through my cellphone I kept listening to the many Iranians who discussed their understanding of the current situation in the Persian blogosphere. Many of these individuals were based in Iran. They kept discussing the filtering system, the Denial of Service attacks, Balatarin.com, and their hopes for the blogosphere one day toppling the Iranian regime. When I was asked about how I saw the blogopshere, I pointed at the many other functionalities and fields of activity of the blogosphere. To me, political activism was just one of the many functions that the blogosphere was capable of getting engaged in. To be more precise, I would have described the current situation in the Persian blogosphere as over-politicization and not political activism indeed.
The Persian blogosphere has been political since the beginning. The closure of classical media, and the evident bans on other forms of social engagement have indeed elevated the interest for the virtual world. The disputed presidential elections of 2009 and the violent events which pursued it were decisive factors in making the virtual world the most physically achievable mean of social and political participation in Iran. This massive exodus to the virtual world has of course been followed with a massive crackdown on the Internet. Prosecution which once targeted social and political activists has recently summoned the general public of many social networks. The list of worries of Iranian Internet users does not limit to the post-connection time. Bloggers and user of social networks that I have interviewed in Iran tell me about the many hurdles they have to go through in order to make the connection to the web in the first place. One blogger once told me “when you have to wait for 4 minutes for the page to show up, then it is not fair to call that Internet anymore”.
The conditions in Iran have made online activity a hazardous and risky endeavour. It takes time, money, and extreme effort to connect to the Internet. While online, many services have limited functionality, because of internal restrictions as well as external sanctions. The circle of approved content and behaviour is limited to the extent that almost any normal human behaviour may fall into one of the taboos. An online Iranian user is walking in a minefield with tall thick walls. It is hard to get into and it is hard to walk on. The minefield is of course equipped with delay switches. You may be fine for some time, but everything that you have ever done is always haunting you.
It is not only a matter of personal level of tolerance for risk for an Iranian to accept the hazards of online interaction in Iran. Families are bombarded by TV ads, soap opera, and films on the black magic which threatens individuals on the Internet. I have heard of prominent bloggers not disclosing their blog address, or even the fact that they blog, to their parents and significant others.
The bottom line is that you have to be a risk-taker if you are planning to have a noticeable online presence in Iran. And that is the other aspect of similarity between blogs and alcohol and drugs. The casual user sooner or later leaves the risky activity for the more passionate one, or the one who does not have to justify her actions to her support structure. Internet becomes an extreme environment where a fringe culture starts growing.
No sane observer may suggest that the Iranian public approves of the Iranian regime. There is no doubt that many aspects of the Iranian society are considered outdated, incorrect, and in need of extreme overhaul, by majorities in the Iranian society. However, in the Persian blogosphere, the story takes on an extreme swing. The Iranian establishment, and any element in it, becomes a monstrous evil. The lowest level members of the paramilitary Basij and government workers in small cities and towns are not exempt. The system has to go away. There is a clear distinction between the people and the establishment. Everything is clear and the solution is trivial and medical. A surgery is advised and passionately advocated for. External military action is sometimes suggested. Religion is bashed and has to go away. Things are clear and bold. So are the fonts used on blogs.
In order to be active online in contemporary Iran, one has to accept the hardships of connection and the potential risk of being tracked down by the authorities. Nevertheless, social interaction in the physical world is also restricted and carries dangers. The achievable pleasure of online activity is mixed with the hazards of imminent prosecution. The implications of practicing one’s freedom of expression can be extreme. The conditions surrounding the use of the online world in Iran have many resemblances to the use of alcohol and drugs in the country. The three provide pleasure in a restricted environment, and the three demand an elevated level of risk-taking. The practitioners of the three have something in common as well; they have higher tolerance for risk and potentially looser support structures. Hence, either group has a high potential of forming a fringe extreme society within the general public.
There is an obvious distinction between bloggers and Iranian users of the Internet with alcohol and drug abusers in Iran. The latter are considered individuals who need to be helped out of their misery. This is the view from both the outside and the inside. The former, however, the practitioners of the virtual world, are, at least from the outside, the heros of the age of eRevolution. The fact of the matter is that the society which is to be allegedly fixed by this group may not in fact consider them much more than web junkies with extreme non-practical views which belong to a world which is sometimes as far from theirs as Mars is.
With all the routes to normal and humane social interaction sealed off in the Iranian society, the online world has become one of the only acting substitutes. This special position has elevated the hopes for possible change happening in the physical world through events which happen in the virtual world. Some of these hopes are substantiated in sober evidence. Nevertheless, the fact that the tools utilized in the virtual world are glossy websites and shiny smartphones must not distract us from the facts on the ground. Extreme operational conditions pave the way for the extreme elements of the society to become active and to define the terms in social movements. It is a real threat that the rest of the population may in fact not identify with this minority.
First published in article19.org.
AUTHOR Arash Abadpour (pen name Arash Kamangir) has been one of the most prominent Iranian bloggers in the blogosphere in the past few years. He blogs in English at kamangir.net and in Persian at persian.kamangir.net. He holds a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Manitoba. Contact: email@example.com
PHOTO Two girls sit on the embankment of the Neva river while their friends drink from a shared bottle. Oleg Klimov / Panos Pictures.